A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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Wicken lies about ten miles north-east of Cambridge, and five south of Ely. (fn. 1) It covers 1,604 ha. (3,965 a.) (fn. 2) in an irregular triangle. (fn. 3) Its western boundary largely follows the winding course of the river Cam, though taking in along its southern part a narrow strip, once part of Wicken's common, along that river's western bank. (fn. 4) In the south-west corner stands the small and isolated hamlet of Upware, at a site possibly so named from the 10th century. (fn. 5) Nearby, Wicken includes a 12-a. triangular island south of the junction of Reach Lode with the Cam; the curved portion of that river that once isolated it dried up by 1978. To the south Wicken is divided from Burwell by the curving Wicken Lode, which runs into Reach Lode shortly before the latter meets the Cam. Wicken Lode's eastern section was called Monks' Lode by the 17th century. (fn. 6) To the north-east Wicken's boundary with Soham curves along a fen watercourse.
The south-eastern angle of the parish lies mainly upon gault, its northern part upon the Lower Greensand. A long, narrow strip of boulder clay bends westward and northward from Wicken's south-eastern angle, over gault and greensand towards its northern end. Much of the greensand along the western side is covered with a block of Upware limestone. In the far north, and in the surviving Wicken Fen south-west of the village, are extensive beds of peat, which in Sedge fen overlay a layer of shell marl in those places where the marl was not eliminated by peat digging. (fn. 7) Most of the parish is virtually level fenland, lying below 10 m. The ground rises marginally higher only in parts of the boulder clay ridge, where the names of Spinney and Thornhall indicate the thorny scrub once cleared around them, (fn. 8) and in a limestone swell to the west. The ridge provided near its south-east end a site for Wicken village, the swell space for arable open fields, cultivated on a triennial rotation until inclosure in 1840-1. The remaining once common fen pastures were gradually taken into several cultivation, partly in the 13th century, but mainly in the late 17th. Wicken Sedge fen, having escaped regular cultivation, was preserved in the 20th century by the National Trust as an example of traditional fen landscape.
Wicken's fens have yielded scattered traces of prehistoric activity, both Stone Age flint tools, (fn. 9) and some Bronze Age weapons. (fn. 10) From Roman times date coin hoards found, 1878-82, north of the church, (fn. 11) and from the late Anglo-Saxon period a few spears and other weapons. (fn. 12)
In 1086 the vill contained 19 peasants and 5 servi. (fn. 13) By 1279 there were c. 45 inhabited messuages. (fn. 14) Only 30 people were taxed in 1327, (fn. 15) but 157 adults paid the poll tax in 1377, (fn. 16) and 43 people the subsidy in 1524. (fn. 17) In 1603 there were 200 communicants. (fn. 18) The population had risen considerably in the late 16th century, apparently reaching, 1610-40, a high level again perhaps attained in the 1670s and c. 1700-20. It sometimes also fell by up to a quarter. (fn. 19) The 85 inhabited dwellings of 1664 had allegedly been reduced to c. 70 by 1666. (fn. 20) The population, again growing from the 1750s, (fn. 21) had reached c. 600 by the 1810s, then rose by c. 150 in each of the two decades before 1831, before reaching 1,054 in 1851. Reduced in 1861, numbers recovered to c. 1,130 by 1871, (fn. 22) before falling by almost 300 by 1881. Between the 1890s and the 1950s Wicken's population ranged, growing very slightly after 1900, between c. 665 and c. 715, before declining to 613, its lowest point since 1800, in 1971. In the 1980s it grew by only 30 to 693 in 1991. (fn. 23)
The medieval village probably already stood c. 1 km. (1/2 mile) from the parish's southeastern corner, mainly around an elongated east-west green, (fn. 24) much reduced in extent by encroachments; one, including a late medieval dwelling, occupies its north-east quadrant, south of the modern Butts Lane which probably marks the original perimeter. Another large intake near the green's centre almost severs its eastern fragment from Pond Green, with the surviving pond (fn. 25) and the war memorial, a granite obelisk, to the west. At the east end of the green another portion south of the modern road through the village was styled Cross Green in the 20th century, after the medieval limestone cross buried upside down until excavated and reinstated there in 1973. Its broken, chamfered stem rests on a square base. (fn. 26) What was left of the green was mostly preserved at inclosure by allotting it as the 3-a. recreation ground required under the inclosure Act of 1840. (fn. 27)
At its north-west end the green narrowed into North Street, mentioned in 1413. (fn. 28) By the mid 17th century (fn. 29) there ran parallel to the green on the south a narrow backside, (fn. 30) leading at its west end into Lode Lane; that lane runs southwards to a small group of cottages at 'Lode', close to a navigation channel cut north-east from Wicken Lode. Other lanes led north from the green, including one which ran through what was probably the part of the village called Northorp in the 1410s and Northup in 1666 (fn. 31) towards the former Northup fen. (fn. 32) That lane, perhaps called Northup lane c. 1740, when dwellings stood only along its east side, (fn. 33) was known by the mid 19th century as Drury lane.
A few small settlements existed outside the village from the Middle Ages. Upware, so named presumably from a fishing weir on the river, (fn. 34) was inhabited in the early 13th century (fn. 35) and the 15th. (fn. 36) Farmsteads, originally monastic, were established at Spinney and Thornhall in the 13th century close to the ways running north-west from the village along the clay ridge. (fn. 37) Other small groups of dwellings, scattered by the early 19th century over the north and west of the parish, were probably first erected after its fens had been divided in the 17th century.
Wicken's relative poverty or isolation has led to its retaining several late medieval and early modern timber-framed houses, some still thatched: one, south of Pond Green, has a 15thcentury hall with an original jettied cross wing on the east. The originally single-storeyed Butts Farm, north-east of that green, also has between its service and parlour ends a hall range of c. 1500, given an upper floor when the parlour end was rebuilt as a cross wing c. 1600. (fn. 38) Around the green stand several 17th-century houses and cottages, often with dormers, some wholly or partly brick-cased. One east of Cross Green still has a traditional hall plan, others have three bays in line. (fn. 39)
Of the dwellings reported in 1666-74, 50-55 had only one or two hearths each, and only 5-6 had five or more. (fn. 40) After 1800 the number of dwellings rose from the 85-90 reported before 1813 to 110 in 1820, 226 in 1851, and a peak of 259 by 1871. (fn. 41) Between the 1850s and the 1880s (fn. 42) 140-50 dwellings lay along the main village street, with another 30 along the lanes to the north. Many were in subdivided buildings. (fn. 43) Only 42 houses and 10 cottages had been reported in the parish in 1842: c. 20 houses then probably stood each side of the green with 20 more on the northern lanes, while eight buildings at the Lode housed 15 cottagers. Another 15-20 dwellings stood on Lower Drove, the more northerly road that linked Drury and Chapel lanes before running north-west, and up to 15 along Fenside, its northern continuation. A few other farmhouses in the fen had 2-3 cottages next to them, with 4-8 at Padney. The hamlet at Upware had 10-12 dwellings. After 1871 the number of inhabited houses shrank sharply: 25 were empty by 1881 and 45 by 1891, and from 1901 to the 1920s only 180-90 were occupied, (fn. 44) including 36 houses and c. 85 cottages in and around the village in 1910, but only 13 dwellings towards the Lode and 10 at Upware. (fn. 45)
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw some new building in brick, including Kitchener terrace of 1916 on Chapel Lane. There were still only 221 houses in 1961, 243 in 1981, less than a fifth being council housing, and 269 by 1991. (fn. 46) A line of council houses begun in the 1940s north of the road running east from the green almost joined the village to the church and Hall Farm. (fn. 47) Another group of ten semi-detached council houses along a new crescent, originally begun c. 1950, on the south side of North Street were replaced in 1983-4. (fn. 48) New building in the late 20th century was largely confined to infilling within the ancient bounds of the village; some new dwellings also went up, mostly from the 1970s, west of the lanes leading north from the main street. (fn. 49) From the 1950s several large new houses, five by 1958, were built on a new road at Upware. (fn. 50) Mains water reached the village in 1947, (fn. 51) but mains sewerage only in 1975. (fn. 52)
Until the 20th century Wicken's only road connection with the outside world was through its south-east corner. Within the parish the village was linked to its northern fens by two parallel causeways running north-west along the ridge, one recorded from the 13th century to the early 15th, (fn. 53) past the sites of Spinney and Thornhall. One of those ways was called Afterway by the early 17th century, (fn. 54) the other on the north-east Lower Drove by 1757. (fn. 55)
Starting a little north-east of Spinney another way linked those two ways, then curved southwest towards Upware. (fn. 56)
At inclosure the fieldways were mostly left to follow their former courses. Another road then set out to run westward over the fields led to a private ferry, still apparently operating after 1900, across the Cam to Dimmocks Cote, (fn. 57) recorded by the 1630s. There were still dwellings there in the 20th century, as in the 1650s; (fn. 58) one was used as a public house c. 1775-1803. (fn. 59) Only in 1928 did a bridge built across the river just south of that point, replacing a military pontoon erected 1914 × 1918, link Wicken permanently by land, along the improved Dimmocks Cote road, to the fenland villages to its northwest. (fn. 60) Further south a chain ferry was still in use at Upware in the 1910s. (fn. 61)
From the 19th century onwards the village's main public house has been the Maid's Head, (fn. 62) near the north-east side of the green, so named from the late 1760s. (fn. 63) It occupied a timberframed, 15th-century hall house, later brickcased, which had a crossing added to the west in the 16th century. A two-storeyed greybrick block, built to the west in 1852, (fn. 64) probably provided a clubroom serving both local benefit societies (fn. 65) and a Conservative club started in 1895. (fn. 66) The still thatched east part, gutted by fire in 1983, was swiftly rebuilt in 1984-5 to its former design. (fn. 67) It was still open in 1995. The Red Lion, recorded from the 1770s, at the western end of the green (fn. 68) had closed in the early 1930s, and the Black Horse off Lode lane by the 1950s. (fn. 69)
By the 1760s Upware had its own public house serving the river traffic, originally called the (Black) Swan, but renamed from 1806 after Lord Nelson (fn. 70) and popularly called from c. 1850 the 'Five Miles from Anywhere: No Hurry'. (fn. 71) Rebuilt in 1811 and remodelled c. 1850, the whitewalled, thatched inn accommodated c. 1851-6 a convivial association called the Upware Republic, numbering up to 300, of Cambridge undergraduates, devoted themselves there to fishing, boating, shooting, and skating. A rumbustious Cambridge man, R. R. Fielder (d. 1886), lived there in the 1860s as 'king of Upware', drinking hard and fighting the barge x men. Closed by the 1950s and demolished after a fire in 1955-6, (fn. 72) the inn was again rebuilt on a large scale c. 1980. (fn. 73) It was open in 1995, serving recreational boating along the river.
About 1800 the manorial estate included a 1/2-a. Camping close near the village. (fn. 74) The village youth still kept up bibulous Plough Monday customs in the 1850s. (fn. 75) In the 1890s the green outside the Maid's Head still accommodated the traditional village feast, held with showmen's stalls, roundabouts, and sometimes a travelling theatre; it then lasted for two or three days in mid May, apparently starting on 'Old May Day' (13 May). (fn. 76) It survived in the early 1920s. (fn. 77) The village normally used the church Mission Hall of 1887, (fn. 78) close to the Red Lion, as its main social centre (fn. 79) into the late 20th century. (fn. 80) A silver band, founded in 1911, was still flourishing in the 1990s, (fn. 81) but a British Legion branch of 1921 expired in 1984 for lack of members. (fn. 82) The village also had in the 1980s a football club (fn. 83) and from 1963 a youth club, (fn. 84) and held flower shows, 1978-90. (fn. 85)
Close to the river at Upware was an earthwork, 75 ft. square, still visible in the 1930s but largely ploughed out in the 1960s, which lay in the middle of one side of a larger rectangular enclosure. The smaller earthwork was surrounded by a moat 40 ft. wide, now dry, materials dug from which raised the level of its interior, in which brickwork has been found. It was linked by a dried-up channel to a former wharf on the river, partly revetted in brick and stone, (fn. 86) and has been identified as a fortification of the 1640s. From the mid 17th century there was a sluice south of Upware, where Reach Lode enters the Cam near the present lock. The Bedford Level Commissioners paid to maintain it from the 1710s to the 1780s and again, after prolonged abandonment, in 1830-4. Soon after, a windpump there (fn. 87) was replaced by a brick pumping station that survived into the mid 20th century, with a tall chimney for the disused steam pumping engine. (fn. 88)
Until the late 19th century those possessing the doles in Wicken Fen south of the village (fn. 89) exploited it in the traditional manner by cutting sedge, without completely draining it. Moreover the sluice at Upware kept that fen's water level higher than in the surrounding farmland, while the massive banks around its northern and western sides helped retain floodwater from the upland to the south-east. Though usually dry in summer, the fen still flooded in winter into the 1940s. (fn. 90) About 1850 it still had a great variety of fenland plants and creatures, especially insects and some birds, that were lost from neighbouring fens then recently brought under cultivation. Mainly from the 1850s it attracted naturalists, the first reported visit being in 1833, for whom villagers profitably provided lodgings. (fn. 91)
In the 1890s, when the fen was thought to be at risk of being drained, after a fall in sedge prices reduced the value of doles there, some entomologists bought up individual strips. (fn. 92) One, the Conservative politician, G. H. Verrall, (fn. 93) active at Wicken from the 1890s, (fn. 94) had by 1910 acquired 206 a. At his death in 1911 he left 239 a. of the fen to the National Trust, which already owned another 10 a. (fn. 95) By the early 1930s the Trust had obtained by other gifts (fn. 96) almost all the 320 a. of Sedge fen, besides most, 45 a., of Edmunds fen to its east. It cut new wet droves east-west across the middle of Sedge fen. To preserve biological diversity the Trust continued the traditional sedge cutting over successive areas, but only every third year. (fn. 97) Much of Sedge fen, and most of Edmunds fen, came to be covered with fen carr, and some rare species, including the swallowtail butterfly and fen orchids and violets, for which Wicken had once been famous, were lost. By 1980 the area of carr in Sedge fen had increased since the 1930s from 145 a. to 250 a., while that consisting purely of sedge had declined from 147 a. to only 26 a. (fn. 98) In 1956 the Trust restored and installed at the northern corner of Sedge fen a timber-framed pumping windmill of 1892, brought from Burwell Adventurers' Fen. (fn. 99) In 1969 it opened a visitors' centre with a laboratory at the entrance to the fen from Lode lane, (fn. 100) and in 1988-90 restored a small, timber-framed, 17thcentury cottage off that lane as an example of a fenman's dwelling of the 1930s. (fn. 101) By the 1980s Wicken Fen was visited by c. 400,000 people each year. (fn. 102)